Wire reports

Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2005

Bill uses permanent fund for construction

JUNEAU - A proposal recently introduced in the Senate would use $337 million in Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to pay for school construction and maintenance costs.

The bill by Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, would send $212.6 million from the earnings of the permanent fund to K-12 construction and maintenance projects across the state. The University of Alaska and other higher education institutions would get $124.5 million.

Stevens, in a statement explaining the bill, said the plan would diminish permanent fund dividends by less than 1 percent over a 15-year period.

Stevens' bill is one of several proposals in this year's session using permanent fund earnings. Under another bill, much of the governor's proposed capital budget would be funded with bonds, with the debt repaid from earnings from a special account within the permanent fund.

Also, the Legislature approved using $7 million from permanent fund earnings to pay for preparatory work for a proposed gas pipeline from the North Slope.

Democrats have opposed using permanent fund earnings without an authorizing vote by Alaska residents.

Whittier drops efforts to build private prison

ANCHORAGE - The city of Whittier has dropped its efforts to secure state money to build a large, privately run prison.

The decision cuts Whittier's ties with Cornell Cos., a Houston-based company that operates private prisons.

"At this point we're not going to be pursuing anything," Cornell communications director Lisa Tauser said. "We're disappointed, but we respect their decision."

The Whittier City Council voted 5-1 last week to end its three-year effort to win state money for the prison.

Whittier city officials started traveling to Juneau in 2002 to make the case for the prison after Cornell approached them. The state House approved a Whittier prison that year, but the measure stalled in the Senate.

The proposal wasn't the first to reach a dead end.

Since the mid-1990s, proposals for private correctional facilities in Anchorage, Delta Junction, Kenai and Whittier have found favor with legislators. Two prison deals were approved, and two others made it through the state House. Competing proposals to build state-run facilities were pushed aside.

But each private plan eventually died, falling victim to local opposition, resistance from corrections worker unions and skepticism from some state officials.

Meanwhile, the number of state prisoners shipped to the Lower 48 because of inadequate space in Alaska has grown to 760.

Task force considers proposal to sell gas

KENAI - A governor-appointed task force is considering a proposal to sell state-owned natural gas to Agrium USA, a move that would help prevent the planned closure of the company's Nikiski fertilizer plant.

Bob Favretto, co-chair of the task force, said the state should sell its royalty gas to Agrium with a contract tying the price to the price of ammonia.

This would allow the state to reap some rewards from Agrium's profits, according to Favretto. He said it would be a short-term solution until a long-term supply of gas became available.

The plant is scheduled to close Oct. 31.

In soliciting new supplies of gas, Agrium has said it is willing to enter into a sliding scale contract where gas prices are tied to ammonia commodity prices.

The task force is charged with pursuing ways to keep the plant open, helping employees transition into new jobs and looking at ways to spur long-term economic development in the region.

When companies produce oil and gas from state lands, they pay royalties to the state. The state can either take the royalties in the form of cash payments or in kind, giving the state a supply of the resource to use as it sees fit.

Currently the state receives cash for its royalty gas in the region, giving producers, such as Unocal Corp. and Marathon Oil Co., more gas to sell to their customers. Twenty-five percent of the money received from royalties goes into the Alaska Permanent Fund and the rest into the state's general fund.

Coast Guard to track traffic electronically

ANCHORAGE - The Coast Guard will begin electronically tracking ship traffic through the heavily traveled Aleutian Islands this summer.

The data could establish the basis for demonstrating the need for new equipment to prevent shipwrecks, agency officials said Tuesday at a shipping safety forum here.

The new system is expected to be installed by June.

It likely would not have made a difference in the case of the Selendang Ayu, the 738-foot freighter that ran aground on Unalaska Island last December. Capt. Jack Davin, the Coast Guard's chief of marine safety in Alaska, said the ship would have been beyond the tracking system's range when it lost power in the Bering Sea and began to drift.

Six crewmen died during an attempt to lift them off the stricken ship. The freighter broke in half, spilling nearly 350,000 gallons of oil and some 60,000 tons of soybeans.

Some 1,000 to 2,000 large commercial ships travel take the great circle route between North America and Asia every year. The shortcut passes through the Aleutians twice - entering and leaving the Bering Sea.

Washington youth smoking decreases

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The percentage of young people smoking cigarettes in Washington has decreased by almost half since the state launched its tobacco prevention program in 2000, the governor said Wednesday.

Gov. Christine Gregoire credited the drop to the state's commitment to its tobacco prevention programs and the efforts of various state agencies and schools to keep kids from smoking.

The percentage of youth smoking is at an all-time low since the state began tracking the topic in 1990, according to results from a 2004 Healthy Youth Survey.

The survey, taken by 185,000 Washington students, gathers information on youth health behaviors including tobacco and alcohol abuse and seatbelt use among sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th graders. The average decrease in smoking among all the grades surveyed was close to 50 percent.

According to the survey, the percentage of 12th graders who smoke decreased from 35 percent in 1999 to 20 percent in 2004. The percentage of 10th graders decreased from 25 percent in 1999 to 13 percent last year.

The state's youth prevention programs include advertising campaigns and school and peer education programs, where students teach other students about the consequences of smoking.

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